Foote’s Folly. That’s what they called the attempt to dig the New York Canal when all the cool New York cash ran out and work was abandoned before the project could be finished. But the growth of the Bench District and the Valley’s desert farmland after the completion of the Ridenbaugh Canal should have been evidence enough that this was no folly. For it did for the Bench what the New York Canal did for Kuna, Nampa, Meridian, and all of the Valley’s outlying farmlands—it gave the desert a new life.
In 1877, six years before A.D. Foote and John Sherman arrived in Boise to survey the area for the so-called New York Canal, Mr. William B. Morris formally filed a notice of intent to divert water away from the Boise River and into the canal that he had for the most part already completed. Morris’ partner, Alexander Rossi, and his nephew, W.H. Ridenbaugh, completed the project after Morris passed in 1878. By 1888 the canal delivered water as far as Five Mile Road.
When Morris came to Boise he purchased a considerable amount of acres just south of Boise, both by the river and up on the bench. He also purchased the flour mill on the old Boise-Kelton road, known today as Boise Avenue. The “Morris Mill” was actually built in the 1860s by the Isaac brothers who used the canal to deliver lumber to Rossi’s lumber mill. Ridenbaugh lived nearby, on Boise Avenue, his residence was popularly referred to as “the mills.” Boise historian Hugh Hartman said that Morris’ mills and his work on the canal employed at least 50 men, as well as horse and cattle-teams. Housing for those workers developed near the holding ponds just above Boise Avenue, where the canal reached the road that led to Boise, and together the whole area was called “Morristown.” 
Before the Ridenbaugh canal the bench was known for its over-land trails. The area was used primarily by wagons, freight, and stage; it was known by town-folk for the sagebrush and jackrabbits. After the canal had been dug, and water delivered to the bench, families began to homestead. These early homesteaders would eventually, in turn, relinquish their lands to newcomers who hoped to settle down. M.F. Eby’s homestead near present-day Curtis road had one of the first homes built on the bench in 1887. Eby immediately sold 80 of his 160 acres to the Curtis brothers, who sold half of their lot to C.A. Larson. Eby also relinquished acres to Oric and Russ Cole, the brothers who donated the land for Cole School.
Much of the land was purchased by well-to-do magnates arriving from the East and the Midwest, such as Morris, who managed Idaho’s Wells Fargo stage lines. But not all of those who settled on the bench were already-made men. In 1892 Asa Tillotson arrived in Boise by wagon along with his six children and pregnant wife. He managed to procure 5 acres from Benjamin Scott (who donated the land for Franklin School) and built a home and made a living. Tillotson’s son, Asa, worked at Meyer’s Orchard on the western bench near the old fairgrounds, and in the winter he delivered ice cut from the Electric Light pond to Boise patrons for $75 per month. Asa went on to manage the Electric Light and Power plant itself, just below the bench, and eventually the younger Tillotson would open a grocery store on the corner of 8th and Idaho Streets, and a sporting goods store in the old Hotel Boise, the Hoff building.
For nearly a century the Bench District laid just outside the Boise City limits and to the west of South Boise limits. By 1957 the bench had 7,325 homes, and was being subdivided and parceled out, but the area was not formally annexed by Boise City until 1964. By then the emigrant trails and jackrabbits had long since vanished as subdivisions overtook the sagebrush.Have a question about Boise’s history? Ask a Historian.